Talking of relativism, one of the most famous ― or infamous ― philosophers we may immediately think of is Protagoras, a noted figure in ancient Greece, and rival of Socrates. Protagoras claimed that whether a thing is good or bad depends on us; what, who, how, when, and where we are: relativism. There is no absolute truth; there are two sides to every question. When asked cold air is good or bad, he answered cold air is both good and bad; if we are a jogger and have just finished jogging, sweating, we will feel cold air relaxing and good. If we are sick and having chills, we will not think it good to be even in a breeze.

Protagoras thought in a relativistic fashion in ordinary life, discussing things like cold air, while Gorgias, also one of the most noted, or notorious, sophists in ancient Greece, applied it to metaphysics, or rather, ontology. Gorgias’s logic is hard to comprehend but his conclusion is simple enough. As opposed to common sense which says that it cannot be the case that a thing both is and is not at the same time, with regard to existence, Gorgias claimed that neither the existent nor the non-existent exist, and both the existent and the non-existent do not, either; that is, what is isn’t, what isn’t isn’t, and what both is and isn’t, isn’t. These propositions go partly against those of Parmenides, who said that what is is, and what isn’t isn’t.

These two representative sophists also advocated a kind of agnosticism. Protagoras claimed that, as to gods, we have no idea whether we know that they exist or not, and what they are like. We don’t know anything about them, a core concept of agnosticism. Gorgias addressed the Athenians, making a somewhat showy statement that nothing exists; that even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; that even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it cannot be communicated to others; and that even if it can be communicated, it cannot be understood. Well, if nothing exists, it is not necessary in the least to add the statement as to whether something is existent, knowable, or communicable. After all, Gorgias’s statement is flashy and excessive. Anyway, I think he tried to persuade us that nothing can be existent nor proved. Which is another expression of agnosticism. It seems that relativism is intrinsically akin to agnosticism.

People say that Protagoras was a relativist, since he thought that a thing can both be and be not at the same time. If he just said thus, I admit he was a relativist. But he was more than that, as I explained before: He also considered that there are some things above and beyond our comprehension. Which suggests that Protagoras, plus Gorgias as well, were both relativists and agnostics, which is a form of what I’d like to call meta-relativism.

Have you ever heard of an ambiguous image? A duck and a rabbit are different: A duck is a bird, a rabbit an animal; a duck has a wide beak, and a rabbit long ears. If we draw a duck, it cannot be a rabbit at the same time. Yet there surely are some cases when a line drawing shows two different things at a time, an ambiguous image. This is the rabbit-duck illusion, in which a rabbit or a duck can be seen.

If we are trapped in the law of non-contradiction, that it is impossible for the same property to belong and not to belong, at the same time, to the same thing, and in the same respect, when we happen to find an ambiguity, we may be confused, at a loss for words. Away with it, I should say. The drawing can be both. If we find more than one in one drawing, our understanding will be richer; the richer the recognition, the more vivid the imagination; the more vivid the imagination, the freer will we be ― we have a wider range of choices before our eyes ― and, the freer, the abler; the abler we are, the fitter will we be for our environment; and the fitter, the happier.

Han Feize, a political philosopher in ancient China, was a good allegorist. One of his famous stories, very logically convincing us not to take two inconsistent sides at the same time, goes like this: A man was trying to sell a spear and a shield, saying that his spear could pierce any shield, and that his shield could defend from all spear attacks. Then one person asked what if he were to take his spear to strike his shield, to which the seller couldn’t answer. So we now know that this story of Han Feizi is the embodiment of the law of non-contradiction: It is impossible that a spear can and cannot penetrate, or a shield can and cannot defend, at the same time, a logical but meager world! Han Feizi was right and rigid but poor, poor in the sense that when he has two things contradicting each other, he just chooses one and dismisses the other. This is as if we only used knife and left fork behind to eat, thinking that knife is to cut and fork not to cut and they contradict and cannot be used at the same time. True that in theory it may be inappropriate and impossible to be incompatible, but in reality it often happens that we need (or already have) both. People say diversity is good and worth keeping, and yet people don’t like it if things are so diverse as to contradict themselves. However, it is in this discrepancy that the real diversity lies.

Yajnavalkya, a Hindu Vedic thinker in ancient India, believed that Brahman, something great and supreme lying in us and at the same time prevailing throughout the universe, both is and is not, neither is nor is not, and is inconceivable. Brahman is transcendent; It is imperceptible, undecaying, unattached, unfettered. It is above and beyond us. Since It is above our comprehension, we cannot say affirmatively that It is this or It is that. We just can say, “Neti, neti,” which can be translated as “Neither this, nor that,” and which goes against the proposition of Protagoras, that it is both this and that.

Brahman is also all-embracing; It is identified with the intellect and the mind; with the eyes and ears; with earth, water, and air; with fire and what is other than fire; with desire and with absence of desire; with anger and with absence of anger; with justice and injustice; and with this and with that. Brahman encompasses all; It is made up of all and It can be identified with all; we can say It is made up of both this and not this, and identified with both this and not this.

Thinking along these lines, we can conclude that Brahman is both neither and both of the contradictory two, since Yajnavalkya declared that Brahman is not this nor that, and that Brahman is both this and that, a paradoxical yet relativist approach.

Relativism is paradoxical; Protagoras claimed that cold air is both good and bad, depending on us. Not only did Yajnavalkya say that Brahman neither is nor is not, but he also told us that Brahman both is and is not. If Yajnavalkya just said that Brahman neither is nor is not, or, Brahman both is and is not, he is a relativist in an ordinary sense; since he announced that It neither is nor is not, as well as It both is and is not, he is more than just relativist; this is another meta-relativism.

Here I have one more thing to add. Yajnavalkya seems to have been agnostic as much as he was relativist. He thought his cognizance of Brahman was so subtle, complex and far-reaching that he could not avoid being a nescient. At one time he forbade an inquirer of Brahman any more questions lest the inquirer’s head should fall off. A meta-relativist he was, I should repeat, indeed.

Tolerance is a virtue. If we would like to be tolerant, we have to be patient with contradicting opinions. It is said that in Jainism, an ancient Indian religion, Jain logic is to beat any opponent in discussion, but it seems to me that Jain way of thinking also enables us to be magnanimous. This is because the logic is tolerant enough to allow for a wide variety of viewpoints. Why tolerance? Because the world we live in is multifaceted, so much so that we cannot catch or get along with it with only one fixed stand in mind. Jain logic, via “perhaps” or “from a point of view” or “in some ways,” attempts to keep up with this world of complexity by taking into consideration all possible cases, tolerance. The logic is comprised of seven statements:

1. In some ways, it is existent.
2. In some ways, it is non-existent.
3. In some ways, it is both existent and non-existent.
4. In some ways, it is indescribable.
5. In some ways, it is existent and indescribable.
6. In some ways, it is non-existent and indescribable.
7. In some ways, it is both existent and non-existent, and indescribable.


A thing cannot be existent absolutely or unconditionally. If it is, it should be no matter how, when, where, it is. However, if we had a thing without any condition, we couldn’t obtain or throw away or avoid it: We couldn’t gain it if we already kept it, we couldn’t discard it if we everlastingly held it, and we couldn’t elude it if we had it unconditionally. But in reality, we always get or dump or evade a thing, which means that it is impossible for a thing to be absolutely existent.

According to Jain logic, concerning a pot, we cannot say there is a pot; the word pot connotes its existence, so if we utter the word pot, it means there is a pot, and it follows from this connotation that when we say there is a pot, it suggests that the existence of pot exists, which is illogical, a tautology. We cannot say there isn’t a pot, either. Since the word pot premises its existence, when we say there isn’t a pot, it entails its existence being not existent, which is nonsense, a contradiction. Which is why we should say that a pot is existent in some sense.

The Jain seven statements are nowhere near clarity, but they concern both relativism and agnosticism, yet another meta-relativism. Take the propositions of Protagoras and Yajnavalkya as an example, to explain Jain relativism. In everyday life Protagoras was relativist, that cold air is good for a jogger and bad for a sick person; on deities he was agnostic, that we have no idea about gods, whether they are existent or not. When Yajnavalkya dealt with deity, he was sometimes a relativist, and at other times he was an agnostic, that Brahman both is and is not, and at the same time Brahman neither is or is not, and that we cannot make inquiries beyond some point.

If a Jain were to know their theory of relativism, she would put on a superior smile and try first to convince Protagoras that in the Jain viewpoint, when he said that cold air is good as well as injurious, and that gods are above our comprehension, it would be paraphrased as the statement that it both is and is not good, and is indescribable in some ways. And then she, in turn, would make an attempt to persuade Yajnavalkya, who said that Brahman is not this nor that, that Brahman consists of both this and that, and that Brahman cannot be thought of above a certain point, the last of which can be construed as the impossibility of the complete knowing of Brahman. A Jain would restate it, saying that in some point, it both is and is not, and indescribable.

Here in part 1, I’ve been dealing so far with relativism, agnosticism, and what I call meta-relativism, concerning thinkers mainly in ancient Greece and India. Jainism may be a brief summary of meta-relativism.


2 thoughts on “Meta-Relativism 1: When East Meets West

  1. Pingback: Meta-Relativism 1: When East Meets West – The Philosophical Hack

  2. Pingback: Meta-Relativism 2: Asia’s Ancient Thinkers | Blue Labyrinths

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